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Property: Home truths about heritage

From: Country Illustrated Magazine.
How the world of country-house investment has turned full circle in 30 years.
By Francis Fulford

THIRTY years ago, in 1974, I visited an exhibition at the V&A called The Destruction of the Country House. It was also, you may recall, the year of the miners’ strike, the toppling of the Heath Government—and the year in which that now lovable old fellow Dennis Healey threatened to tax the rich ‘until the pips squeaked’, making crystal clear his intention not only to introduce a wealth tax but to make death duties unavoidable.

Many who saw Roy Strong’s exhibition then believed that the betting was little better than evens that, 30 years  hence, another such exhibition would record the destruction of most of the remaining country houses in private hands. Certainly that was the view of the ‘experts’ at that time. James Lees Milne wrote in the catalogue (now a collector’s item), ‘One thing is quite certain. The country house way of life, as some of us have known it, will never be revived. All we can and must do is to continue preserving as carefully as we can the fabric and contents of a representative number of country houses.’

Mulling over his words the other day while sipping a large whisky and water brought to me on a silver salver, by a butler, after a superb day’s shooting, I thought, ‘How wrong can one be?’ I pondered his words again a few days later, having dinner in another private country house, surrounded by premier-division pictures, eating food that would send a restaurant critic into raptures, being waited on by not one butler this time, but two.

Butlers, an endangered species in the 1970s, have, like goshawks, made an amazing recovery, and I suspect that there are almost as many butlers in employment today as before the war. Not that every country house now boasts a full staff of butlers, cooks and chambermaids—far from it, as anybody who comes to stay with me or most other owners will find out. Neither would it be true to say that the haemorrhaging of country houses ended with the 1974 exhibition, because of course it did not.

Michael Sayer and Hugh Massingberd’s book, The Disintegration of a Heritage, published in 1993, recorded that between 1973 and 1992 some 450 houses had been ‘alienated from their traditional families’. From 1979-’92—the first 14 years of Conservative rule —250 houses were sold by the owners.

At the time it was said that owners who sold up were ‘bowing to the inevitable’. This in itself merits discussion: I have never been a fan of bowing to anything, and certainly not to something described as ‘the inevitable’. If you consider the phrase ‘bowing to the inevitable’, you soon realise that it is a mere euphemism for cowardice.

Even a cursory study of history shows that those who refuse to ‘bow to the inevitable’ often end up winning a singular and mighty victory—which is precisely what those house and estate owners who hung on through the 1970s, into the ’80s and beyond, have done. Now they are reaping the rewards for their own, or their father’s, determination and courage.

Country houses and estates have metamorphosed from being mainly concerned with agriculture into diversified entities. According to Savills Estate Benchmarking Survey, agricultural income now provides less than 50% of the average estate’s gross income. The balance is instead made up from a mixture of enterprises of which the most prominent is residential lets, closely followed by the rapid expansion of the commercial and leisure activities.

As owners have embraced the new ‘enterprise’ culture, so they have taken on more workers and many now employ the same number of staff as they did in the supposed halcyon days of Edwardian England, perhaps more.

All manner of new, profitable uses have been found for houses which once were considered dinosaurs. Now they host car launches, corporate hospitality events and concerts, not to mention weddings, and many a house condemned as a financial ‘white elephant’ in the past is now a ‘profit centre’. This is a remarkable triumph and one that has been achieved not only against the odds and without bowing to the inevitable, but also against the ‘best advice’ of all those expensive experts.

For those looking into a crystal ball to try and work out how the rural and country-house economy will develop in the next 30 years, this is food for thought. The lesson from history is: Don’t even try; it is simply not worth the effort. You will inevitably get it wrong (especially if you pay for expensive advice).

As for those owners who sold their houses and estates from the 1970s onwards, happily nearly all escaped the fate of break-up and demolition as their sales coincided with a rediscovery of the joys of rural life by the nouveau riche who, as in times past, developed a desire to become country gentlemen—a desire which shows no sign of abating.

I welcome their return to the country-house scene. It has meant that a great many houses have been fully restored at no expense to the public purse and the new owners, having deep pockets, have spent prodigiously on restoring and enhancing their estates and employing local people—even a butler or two. The scene would not be unfamiliar to the newly-rich 18th-century merchant who built the house.

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